Using the internet wasn’t a question that wouldn’t have bothered the parents of teenagers a generation ago but it is a “necessary” these days – a necessary evil or a necessary good? Allowing your child you access the Internet requires that you know what your child is doing. Some experts feel that children should be exposed to the Internet from an early age. It is therefore important that parents be familiar with the sites that children are likely to visit and how social interaction occurs on those sites. This article will look at the general issues and then focus on several popular sites that parents may wish to encourage their kids to visit.
Today’s parents grapple with internet-related issues, the easy access to inappropriate sites, creepy “friends” that can be found on social media and cyber bullying – how can you control it? One way is to set some boundaries. Sit down and negotiate with your tween about how they spend time on the internet, what sort of things to avoid and how not all matters on the internet are true or reliable. Some suggestions could include no computers in the bedroom; keep them in a public place which will make easier to monitor how long they are online and what they are watching. Another suggestion is to talk to about what’s happening on social media. Serious problems can appear when parents don’t show an interest with their child’s internet activities. A lot of teenagers are reluctant to tell their parents they might be having issues online, like cyber bullying, because they were afraid their parents would take away internet access; and parents sometimes assume the child can tell the difference between a friend online and a possible predator. Knowing their passwords, checking their browsing history and “spot” checks on what site they are on at the time are other issues you may want to negotiate. Talk about downloading and the risks of collecting computer viruses, and how to protect your computer. Discuss how some of their online “friends” may not be friends and will try to pressure your child to do or send something inappropriate. Explain about privacy and how they should never give their details (name, address, school, age, and photos – any identifying thing) to people on the internet without your permission.
Teenagers and adults use the internet in different ways. Adults use the internet to search for information or entertainment mostly, but younger teens usually use it for entertainment and to play online games, then move on to using as a social mechanism. More and more teenagers use the internet to share their ideas, to connect with each other and feel part of a group. But the risks are still there. And if you as a parent aren’t a tech savvy computer boffin you might miss an opportunity to support your child as they explore the internet.
This article will look at sites recommended for under 13’s. It will also only focus on sites that have elements of social networking. This excludes apps that specialise in a particular function like instant messaging or solo offline gaming, but includes sites that incorporate some form of communication with other visitors. Social networking is not just isolated to Facebook or Google +, many kids’ learning sites and games sites allow children to talk to each other via the internet.
So let’s identify the features of a website that parents should evaluate when determining the level of concern over their child’s interaction with others.
Communication with other visitors
Does the site provide a way for your child to communicate with others? Features include a chat function where people can talk in real time, a message system where people can send messages to one or more specific recipients, and forums where discussion about the site occurs. These mediums maybe moderated, where a person supervises the content and behaviour of participants but that tends to be on chat channels and forums only.
A profile section or private space that other people can view
This section contains information about the account holder, and the account holder can allow others to view/visit that section. The information can include personal details, hobbies, and achievements. Visitors may be able to leave comments or other items on the profile.
This is where the site has features that require a cash payment to access. Such features include exclusive access to a part of the game, items that carry enhanced effects compared to normal items available in the game, additional in-game currency, or additional tools that enhance the functionality of the site. This means that the parents will have to provide payment details and kids might apply pressure to gain access to desired content and items.
Does the site report on your child’s activity? Are parents required to sign up for an account in order to monitor the child’s behaviour or control your child’s access or do they have to use the child’s login to monitor their child. Educational sites usually provide feedback on a child’s activity, and sites like Disney’s Club Penguin will give parents accounts to monitor their child’s activity and the ability to change privacy levels on their child’s account.
Having considered the features, let’s get familiar with the types of sites that have some aspect of social interaction with others.
These are sites such as Facebook, Google +, and Twitter. They exist primarily to provide a means of communication with friends and associates. They feature a profile section, a place to add and share posts, and usually instant messaging functions. Some social networks enable multiple points of connection i.e., you can link other network sites to your main network site, e.g. posts on twitter can be sent to your Facebook account.
These are games, either played through a web browser or through a standalone application, that incorporate in-game communication with other players, either through a live chat room feature and/or an in-game messaging system. Also most games will have an associated discussion forum or wiki which also allows players to communicate with each other. Examples of such games for tweens include Moshi Monsters, Poptropica and World of Warcraft. Most games sites have premium features and also in-game advertising. Games also feature an in-game economy where players buy and sell items. These items may sometimes be sold on sites like e-bay using real-world currency.
Schools will subscribe to educational websites such as Mathletics, or ABC’s Reading Eggs. Some education networks contain profile sections for students and the ability to play against other students in educational challenges. Most education networks also allow families to subscribe independently of the school, but there is usually a charge for that. I would like to say that these sites may be more tightly controlled than games and social networks, but I have no evidence for that.
Having looked at the types of networks here are three sites from each group as a starter. In my next article, I will discuss four key rules that parents need to keep in mind when giving their kids access to the internet.
Social Networking Sites
Facebook and Google+ are supposed to be for people aged 13 and over. But let’s be realistic here – it is possible for children under 13 to gain access to these sites by lying about their age, and both companies are not actively doing anything about it. A recent article on the Huffington Post estimates that there are over 5 million children on Facebook who are under 13. In some cases, parents have actively helped their children gain accounts. Fortunately there are some tween specific social networking sites including:
Fanlala a tween site dedicated to popular tween culture.
Jabbersmack: A dedicated tween social network that gives parents control over who your child can interact with.
Kidzvuz a video sharing site for Tweens.
Both Jabbersmack and Kidzvuz are accredited with KidSafe certificates. These certificates are issued by an independent authority that evaluates websites on the basis of protecting children’s privacy and rights. Fanlala is self-monitoring but complies with relevant US Child protection legislation.
Disney has two great gaming networks for kids. Club Penguin which is aimed at younger kids, and Infinity which is aimed at Tweens. At the time of writing this article, you can access Infinity if you have a gaming console which is connected to the net and you have bought Infinity software/hardware from a games shop, making it an expensive gaming network.
Fortunately there are some free gaming networks to look at:
Kogama is a game creating and sharing sites aimed at Tweens. The site helps kids code and create games using a variety of tools. The site comes with a Parent’s information section and has a good Webutation (a site that evaluates other sites based on feedback and reviews).
Aimed at younger Tweens, Poptropica is a gaming based site centred on different islands where you undertake problem-solving quests. You are able to talk with other players, and even challenge them to gaming duels. This site is certified Kidsafe.
OurWorld is a long established gaming social network. Tweens can play a variety of different games, and parents can control their child’s activity on the site. Whilst I found no evidence of any certification, it does claim to be compliant with US child protection legislation.
This is a great educational site for maths training. Many Australian and international schools access Mathletics as part of their curriculum. Students are assigned tasks that they are required to complete. They also get rewarded for the efforts. In addition students can challenge other students in real time games. The site can also be subscribed to independently of the school.
This is the tween focused reading site established by the Australian Broadcasting Commission in conjunction with Blake eLearning. It develops comprehension and critical analysis techniques using a range of games and activities, including access to books on the Australian curriculum.
This site is a science based education site with a dash of art thrown in for good measure. Kids participate in games and activities that develop critical thinking skills as well as observational and creative skills. Kids can write for a town newspaper, explore a museum and participate in trivia contests.
That concludes the list of good sites for tweens. If you have any sites that your kids like feel free to share them in the comments. If you have any questions or would like to know more, then please ask.